Social Barriers Impact Health, Too

An on-line survey of 1000 primary care physicians suggests that social barriers–such as a lack of access to basic housing, transportation, and nutritious foods–can impact patient health as much as access to direct medical care.  The survey was conducted in September and October 2011 on behalf of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.  

The survey found that:

  • 85% of physicians say unmet social needs are directly leading to worse health for all Americans.
  • 85% of physicians say patients’ social needs are as important to address as their medical conditions. This is especially true for physicians (or 95%) serving patients in low-income, urban communities.
  • 76% of physicians want the healthcare system to cover the costs associated with connecting patients to services that meet their social needs if a physician deems it important for overall health.
  • Only 20% of physicians feel confident or very confident in their ability to address their patients’ unmet social needs.
  • Physicians said that if they had the power to write prescriptions to address social needs, these would represent 1 out of every 7 prescriptions they write— or an average of 26 additional prescriptions per week.

Physicians surveyed feel so strongly about the connection between social needs and good health that 3 in 4 wish the health care system would pay for the costs associated with connecting patients to services that address their social needs if a physician deems it important for their overall health. Results also revealed that, if physicians had the power to write prescriptions for social needs, they would prescribe fitness programs, nutritional food and transportation assistance. Physicians whose patients are mostly urban and low-income also wish they could write prescriptions for employment assistance, adult education and housing assistance.

These survey results echo a growing body of research that shows today’s health care system and its focus on treating medical conditions neglects the significant role that social needs play in the health of Americans. Research has shown that factors such as education, income and place of residence can play a greater role in determining people’s life expectancy than health care. Studies also link social factors such as inadequate housing, employment, access to food and other neighborhood deficiencies to more frequent emergency room visits, hospitalizations and overall poorer health, which strains the health care system.

“Every day in America, a physician prescribes medication to treat people’s medical conditions when the larger health issue might be that they live in their car or are without enough food to eat at home. If we are serious about improving the health of all Americans and reducing the cost of care, we have to address patients’ social needs,” said Rebecca Onie, chief executive officer and co-founder of Health Leads. Health Leads, a grantee of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, enables physicians and other health care providers to prescribe basic resources, such as food and heat, for their low-income patients, and is one of many promising models addressing social needs through the health care system.

Do you have any ideas about how to improve access to patients’ social needs?



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